Loretta Roper makes a cake delivery on Dec. 22. Van Dusen photo

RUSSELL – Loretta Roper is all about giving, giving back, to be more precise, and paying it forward. It all started when she was nursing her mother through Alzheimer’s and it just kept going.

For Roper, giving isn’t a seasonal thing; it’s a year-round activity culminating in the annual free-for-all Christmas dinner at St. Mary’s Anglican in Russell. Served in the church hall Dec. 21,  plates were laden with endless amounts of turkey, potatoes, vegetables, stuffing and other trimmings, followed by cookies and squares, tea and coffee.

Among celebrity servers were Russell Township Mayor Pierre Leroux, councillor Andre Brisson accompanied by several members of his family, and Bill McInnis, a kingpin in the Russell Association for the Performing Arts for the past 20 years.

Organized with military precision, it was the 13th edition of the community dinner launched and still coordinated by Janice Stewart. She felt there was a need, brought the idea to St. Mary’s trustees… and away they went. Stewart empha­sized that it isn’t a particular denomination event, that all faiths are welcome and do participate. She even takes holiday time from work to make sure everything clicks into place.

It is so free that Stewart doesn’t even put out a donation box for fear of intimidating guests with nothing to spare. Those who choose to can discreetly slip her some cash which she tucks away in her sweater to help cover expenses. This year, close to 300 meals were served, either in the hall or packaged by little helpers for delivery as far away as Vars and Casselman.

In all, 100 volunteers divided into work groups helped prepare, serve, and distribute 16 turkeys, 120 pounds of potatoes, and trimmings, with daughter Ashley Stewart alone whipping up 24 boxes of Stove Top stuffing. Ashley made it clear she wasn’t “voluntold” but was a willing volunteer who grew up with the annual Christmas community dinner as a family priority.

Flitting in and out among the tables was Loretta Roper, chatting up those who seemed to be alone – including a forlorn news­paper reporter – and handing out small gifts from her Avon treasure trove. She talked about the spirit of giving and how important it is, urging the cynical reporter to pay it forward whenever he could.

One of her rituals is to deliver home-baked choc­olate pudding cakes – the perfect comfort food – to shut-ins and less fortunate families; she was taking around a dozen cakes the following morning and somehow the reporter found himself on her list despite protests that he’s consumed too much cake during his time. And Roper delivered: A pudding cake and a second sample banana chocolatey cake, along with more kind words about helping neighbours throughout the year, not just at Christmas time.

“Loretta has been doing wonderful things like this in the 18 years we’ve known her,” said Peggy Shea-Marchessault. “She flies under the radar and just takes care of people.”